Washington scandal resulted in facility name change
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — It was a particularly pungent problem that inspired former East Ohio politician Bob Ney to work to obtain the funding for a physical fitness facility and showers on the Ohio University Eastern campus in St. Clairsville, and for the university to give it the birth name The Robert W. Ney Center when it opened in 1997.
Nine years later, it was a political stink that led to OUE officials pulling Ney’s name from the athletic complex.
Ohio University opened its branch in Belmont County in 1957 and dedicated the main academic building, Shannon Hall, in 1967, but it had no physical fitness facility or locker rooms for students who participated in athletic activities during its first 40 years.
Bellaire native Ney was a student at OUE in the early 1970s who took advantage of the campus’s local offerings, including physical education classes. Students would often return to the classroom following athletics and exercise, he said.
“There was something lacking — showers,” Ney would recount more than 20 years later. In 1973, he led a petition movement seeking construction of locker rooms at OUE, but there was no immediate movement on the issue.
By the early 1990s, Ney was a veteran state lawmaker serving in the Ohio Senate. He was in the position to provide funding to OUE to build not just showers, but an entire athletic complex. He placed a request for $7 million in an appropriations bill that was approved.
A 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility was constructed containing a 3,500-seat arena, comprehensive community fitness center with locker rooms, classrooms, meeting space and an exercise physiology laboratory.
At the same time, Ney also was planning a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“If it hadn’t passed, I don’t think I would have left the (Ohio) Senate,” he would later comment.
The Robert W. Ney Center was officially dedicated on Oct. 4, 1997, with Ney — by then a federal lawmaker — in attendance. The Ohio University Marching 110 band came from Athens to herald the event, which took place in conjunction with OUE’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
Over the next nine years, Ney rose through the ranks in Washington to become chairman of the House Oversight Committee. It was this position that led to his involvement with now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
By the fall of 2006, an embattled Ney had pleaded guilty to two criminal counts pertaining to influence peddling. He had withdrawn his bid for re-election to the House, and would later resign his House seat following the general election that year.
Ohio University officials were asked then if they planned to remove Ney’s name from the OUE facility, and they initially had no plans to do so. But the OUE Regional Coordinating Council met on Nov. 13, 2006, and recommended to the university that Ney’s association with the school be eliminated.
The members suggested the facility be renamed the Ohio University Eastern Health and Physical Education Center. On Dec. 1, 2016, the Ohio University Board of Trustees formally approved the suggestion.
Ney was convicted on charges including two counts of wire fraud, making false statements and violating post-employment restrictions for former staffers. He served 17 months of a 30-month sentence at the Federal Corrections Institution in Morgantown before being released in August 2008.